Howan-hakase found Nii Jyeni at his desk, reading the newspaper and casually smoking a cigarette. His tacky bunny slippers were propped up on the top of his desk beside the remnants of a day-old cup of coffee and a computer half-hidden by taped up reminder notes. He appeared completely oblivious to the fact that he sat in the middle of a huge research laboratory, surrounded by a small fortune in state-of-the-art scientific equipment. Looking at him now, it seemed as if he had nothing better to do in the world than smoke and read the paper.

Howan's lips thinned in annoyance. Truly, the man was insufferable.

To make matters worse, it seemed that he'd taken to bringing games to work with him now. She walked over, staring down at the hand-carved chessboard currently taking up residence on one of the cluttered corners of the desk beside the idiotic stuffed rabbit. "What's this?"

Nii looked up languidly, turning his attention away from the newspaper long enough to acknowledge her presence. "That? Oh, I've just been playing a little game." Nii gestured expansively at the board. "Would you care to play?"

Her eyes swept over the chessboard disdainfully. "How can you play with that? You're missing one of the pieces."

"Am I?" Nii glanced down at the board with some amusement. "Ah yes, I suppose that I am. Well, they're just so pretty, I can't help giving them away." He picked up one of the clear crystal pieces and held it out to her. "Would you like one, too?"

Howan refrained from touching the pawn, crossing her arms over her chest with a loud "Hmph." "Lady Gyoukumen Koshuu is asking for you. She wants an update on the status of the project."

"Ah. I wondered how long it would take, now that the precious prince of Houtou castle has returned from yet another failed attempt to locate any of the other scriptures of Heaven and Earth." Nii set the pawn back on the board, and picked up a knight, studying it thoughtfully for a moment. It vanished into his palm as he gave a lazy grin and got to his feet. In a tone laden with innuendo, he said, "Well, duty calls. It's a hardship to have my great skills employed so often to satisfy Lady Koshuu's demands. But we all must make sacrifices in the name of science." His gaze lingered on Howan as he added, "How very fortunate that there's someone around with such stamina."

Howan ground her teeth, keeping her temper in check by main force as she waited impatiently for him to leave.

Nii paused in the doorway of the lab, glancing down at the chess piece in his hand, as if only just now remembering that he held it. "You don't like games, do you Professor. A pity." With a shrug, he stuck the crystal knight away in the pocket of his lab coat.

"People who don't learn to play never get what they want."

+++++

Gojyo and Hakkai found Sanzo in his office. They hadn't seen him two days earlier, when they'd come by the temple to drop off the monk they'd rescued. Sanzo had been out on some errand of his own at the time. Hakkai judged that whatever he'd been doing must have gone well, however. Sanzo seemed to be in a better mood, glowering at his paperwork with less antagonism than usual. Maybe the fresh air had done him some good.

His first comment upon seeing Hakkai was, "You found a pet."

Hakkai chuckled, and reached up to touch the neck of the small white dragon riding on his shoulder. "Yes. He seems quite happy to stay with us for a while."

Beside him, Gojyo growled. "Yeah. You fed him. That was your first mistake." He shook his head. "You'd think you would have learned from Sanzo's 'pet'."

Elsewhere in the temple, Goku sneezed.

Hakkai blithely ignored the comment, scratching the little dragon under the chin. "He's actually pretty convenient to have around. I don't know why, but he seems to turn into an automobile when you ask him nicely."

"Hnh," Sanzo said, "Does it have a name?"

Hakkai pondered the matter for a moment. "Well, considering his other form, I thought we'd call him 'Jeep'."

"Jeep," Sanzo repeated heavily, with the faintest edge of disbelief.

"You don't like it? I thought it would be a good alternative to 'White Dragon'."

Sweatdrops appeared all around.

"So," Gojyo spoke up loudly, deliberately changing the subject, "how's our rescuee doing?"

"That monk? He's already left," said Sanzo. "We sent him on to Chou'An with an escort earlier this morning."

Hakkai looked at Sanzo in concern. "Was that a good idea? His injury was still quite serious."

"He insisted that he just wanted to finish what he had set out to do, and then go home as soon as possible." Sanzo didn't sound at all unhappy that the man was gone. He fixed Hakkai with a level gaze. "That monk claims to have been stabbed in the chest."

Hakkai shifted a little nervously under that penetrating stare. "Ah. Well, I'm afraid we were a little careless. It wasn't our intention to let him get stabbed...."

Sanzo interrupted. "With an injury like that, he should have died. Yet somehow, he didn't."

He had obviously already put two and two together on his own. However, just as obviously, he wasn't prepared to let Hakkai off the hook without a full confession. Hakkai rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling a bit sheepish. As if Sanzo didn't have enough to worry about with keeping an eye on him, he'd had to complicate things by going off and developing youkai powers. "Well, according to some books we found in that youkai library, I seem to have acquired some small ability to sense and manipulate ki energy." He held out his hand to demonstrate. As he concentrated, a small globe of colored light formed, hovering over his palm.

"Hnh." Sanzo looked unimpressed. "Is that it?"

"For the moment." The light faded, and Hakkai lowered his hand. "I have a feeling that there may be more to it than that. There are different techniques one can practice, apparently, that help to build focus and control. I'll have to do some more reading on the subject to see what else I can learn."

Sanzo only nodded. He, of all people, would understand the importance of learning to command one's own abilities. Hakkai had begun to take the whole thing very seriously after skimming through the ki books the first time, when he'd realized that powers might not be such a good thing for those around him. He'd had unpleasant visions of a particularly bad nightmare causing him to accidentally blow up part of Gojyo's house. It had nearly caused him to volunteer to sleep out in a tent in the backyard.

Sanzo's gaze shifted to Gojyo. "And what about you? Did any other strange things happen that I should know about?"

Gojyo favored him with a smirk. "Nope. A guy like me has already got all the charm and natural talents anyone needs to survive in this world."

"Ch."

Gojyo and Hakkai didn't stay much longer than that. If Sanzo had any further insight about the youkai they'd encountered, or the power that had been stored in the chess piece they'd brought back, he kept his thoughts to himself.

Outside the temple walls, with the double doors closed solidly behind them, Gojyo paused to light up a cigarette. He exhaled smoke onto the wind, looking off into the distance across the shifting drifts of snow. "Does it seem to you that these errands we've been doing have been getting harder and harder as we go along?" he remarked.

Hakkai, standing only a few steps away, glanced over at him. "You've noticed it, too."

"Yeah. I can't shake this creepy feeling that we're being tested for something."

"Or trained for it." Hakkai gave a wry smile, looking down at the snow by his feet. "Yes, I know exactly what you mean."

Gojyo squinted up into the sky, taking another drag of his cigarette. "What kind of job do you think it is?"

"I don't know." Hakkai shrugged and turned away, as Jeep launched from his shoulder and winged over to where there was enough open space for him to transform. It didn't really bother him. In fact, there was an odd kind of satisfaction for him in the thought. Even if he could never repay the debts he owed, or gain full atonement for his sins, at least he had the opportunity to do what he could, taking things one day at a time and reaching out toward that unseen goal on the horizon. He cast a glance back over his shoulder at Gojyo. "It's not such a bad thing, is it?"

A faint grin plucked at the corners of Gojyo's mouth in response. He didn't look at all dismayed at the prospect of a tougher job ahead. Quite the contrary, he seemed like he was looking forward to it. "Nope," he said, stepping over to where the Jeep was parked, "I don't suppose it is."

+++++

A/N: The knight chess piece is, in fact, symbolic, from Saiyuki Reload tankouban 3--and I won't say any more than that, except it was the origin of the whole chess idea. ^_^ Lizalou42: Thanks for the commentary. It's nice to know that you enjoyed rooting for the boys! I'm also glad you liked the spell and the dialogue. (Those were the best parts to write, too.) Nightfall Rising: It was *really* tempting to describe Hakkai vs. the Minus Wave this time around, it really was. But you're absolutely right, so often in writing, "less is more". That's not to say that the episode might not turn up as flashback material in other fics, though. -_^ I sincerely appreciated the detailed feedback. *bows* Thank you. UltraM2000: Bingo! You're good! ^_^ Yes, the main culprit behind the scenes was Nii. And it was really good to know that things wrapped up neatly for the reader (one of the goals, with so many tangled plot-threads!) Attiquah Greenleaf: No more evil cliffies for this fic. Thanks for all your reviews. And thanks, everyone, for reading through 'till the end! *waves* -V